Colombia is moving into an election year amid increasing labor strife and political uncertainty.
One of the few surviving democracies in Latin America, this nation of 25 million people has been beset by serious labor troubles, unprecedented inflation and rising crime, despite an economic windfall from international coffee prices that will earn Colombia $1.8 billion this year. Labor unrest led to a violent national strike in September, the first in 15 years, and continues to cast a pall over presidential and congressional elections scheduled for the first half of next year.
The violence of the strike, which resulted in 23 deaths, 500 wounded and 4,000 arrests, caught the government unaware, according to sources close to President Alfonso Lopez Michelsen. it was particularly violent in Bogota, Colambia's capital of 4 million people, where army troops fought a two-day battle with slum dwellers in the southern part of the city.
A protest against the high cost of living, the strike demonstrated a rare show ofunity among the country's four labor federations - two on the left and two larger ones linked to Colombia's two traditional parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals.
Tulio Cuevas, a Conservative congressman and spokesman for the four federations, said that the two traditional federations had joined the leftists in the nationwide strike because of strong pressure from the rank and file.
Although President Lopez has attempted to pacify labor by dismissing the interior and finance ministers and promising to increase wages by 41 per cent between now and May, union leaders say the government's olive branch is "an insufficient palliative."
"We will use legal or illegal means ot achieve the better wages that Colombian workers are demanding," said Victor Bahena, leader of the labor federation linked to the Liberal Party.
The unions are seeking an immediate 50 per cent wage increase to offset inflation. The government calculates prices have risen 30 per cent this year, while the International Monetary Fund's estimate is 40 per cent. According to the Bogota economic monthly Estrategia, edited by former Finance Minister Rodrigo Botero, prices between November, 1974. and August of this year have more than doubled while wages increased by only 50 per cent.
The Lopez administration has refused to consider a 50 per cent wage hike on the grounds that this will only add fuel to the inflationary fire, but this does not cut any ice with union leaders. The average Colombian workers earns $100 a month, although the government's statistics agency calculates that the minimum monthly "family basket" of food, rent and other essential items costs $175.
As a result of inflation and an 11.6 per cent unemployment rate, crime has increased enormously in the past two years with an average 50 kidnapings per month in Bogota alone. Corruption also has become a serious administrative problem with the growth in the illegal marijuana and cocaine trade that is flooding the black market with more than $1 million annually.
Elected in a landslide victory in 1974, President Lopez has gradually lost most of his popular support because of the combination of inflation, corruption and violence. His followers insist that nobody could have done better considering all the problems besetting the country.
Despite the inevitable talk of a military coup, the consensus among political leaders is that the military "doesn't want the civilians' headaches." One exception is former army commander, Gen. Alvaro Valancia Tovar, who has launched his presidential candidacy with a clean-up-government campaign.
Valencia is a dark horse, in what is basically a three-way race among the Conservatives! Belisario Betancur, a former labor minister, and the Liberals' Julio Cesar Turbay, who controls the party machinery, and former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo, who is supported by the country's industrialists and middle class.
Several candidates have been fielded by the splintered left, but on the basis of the last presidential elections when a united leftist front won only 100,000 votes out of a total of 4.9 million, they have no chance of success.